Crude Oil Properties Relevant to Handling and Fire Safety in Transport

Crude Oil Properties Relevant to Handling and Fire Safety in Transport

The Department of Energy commissioned a technical team through Sandia National Laboratories to examine the properties of tight crude oils as they relate to potential combustion events in the rail transport environment. Key investigation objectives are to characterize and define tight crude oils based on their chemical and physical properties, and identify properties that could contribute to increased potential for accidental combustion.

A fireball from the Lac-Mégantic train derailment. (photo credit: Public Herald, Creative Commons 2.0)

A fireball from the Lac-Mégantic train derailment. (photo credit: Public Herald, Creative Commons 2.0)

This investigation was commissioned in response to the occurrence, in the US and Canada during 2013–2014, of several well-publicized rail accidents involving crude oil combustion, some of which involved loss of life and significant property damage and environmental impacts.

The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster occurred in the town of Lac-Mégantic in the Canadian province of Quebec (just west of its border with Maine). At ~1:15 a.m. on July 6, 2013, an unattended 74-car freight train carrying Bakken formation crude oil rolled downhill and derailed, resulting in the fire and explosion of multiple tank cars. Forty-two people were confirmed dead, with five more missing and presumed dead. More than 30 buildings in the town’s center, roughly half of the downtown area, were destroyed and all but three of the thirty-nine remaining downtown buildings are to be demolished due to petroleum contamination of the townsite.

Police helicopter view of Lac-Mégantic, the day of the derailment.

Police helicopter view of Lac-Mégantic, the day of the derailment.

As the first step in the investigative process, this initial report is a compilation and summary of publicly available literature and data pertaining to the chemical and physical properties of tight crude oils. Key literature/data sources reviewed include

  • recent reports on Bakken crude properties commissioned by the
    • American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers,
    • North Dakota Petroleum Council, and
    • US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and
  • data from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve project.

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This initial investigation identified

  • gaps in important crude-oil characterization data;
  • uncertainty regarding how best to sample and analyze crude oil to ensure that its properties are accurately determined; and
  • deficiencies in the understanding of how crude oil properties impact its potential for accidental ignition, combustion, and explosion.

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DOE Office of Fossil Energy supported this effort on behalf of the US Department of Transportation.